Thursday, April 16, 2009

Organizing the Pantheon of Multimedia Communication

Recently I heard Garrison Keillor quote Joseph Campbell, in one of his essays on writing: “A computer is like an Old Testament god, with a lot of rules and no mercy.”

It doesn't help that the rules are rational and sanitary. No stoning. No beheading. Bacon is not a problem. Just cold opprobrium that is made even colder by the certainty that You Did Something Wrong.

Fixing this is the central task of user interface designers.

Clearly, then, it isn't good enough to enshrine the olde thunderbolt-slinger in a fancy temple < cough >smartphone< /cough >. That won't make him any easier to deal with. We have to reform the rules. More, we have to reform the language the rules are written in and the definitions of the nouns.

That is what initiatives like MMTel and RCS require, but, so far, are not getting from user interface designers. Your 2.5G phone is a simple minor deity with simple rules. Everyone understands the propitiations and few are therefore intimidated. But the pantheon is getting crowded with both the bureaucratic jinns of IMS, and the anarchic dryads of the Internet.

Messaging is now multimedia messaging. Email and IM bring two other rites of messaging. IM presence and social network updates make it a group event, along with your push-to-talk circle of initiates. And plain old voice conversations can travel over the righteous roads of the synchronous digital hierarchy or the twisted but beguiling paths of the Internet.

Putting all this in separate little shrines, with separate sets of rules and liturgies is bound to put us at risk of hellfire and damnation, and the use of Strong Language. Consequently, the people are divided into the zealous, who are undeterred by complexity and proudly wear their scourges in a belt pouch, and the agnostic, who are driven to indifference.

The successful interface to IMS-based capabilities will solve this problem. It will put all the media for communication under a single set of simple rules and inside of one interface – not a set of applications, but one unified application for communication, just as using the 2.5G voice network requires just one user interface.

The problem is one of levels of abstraction. How can you take protocols as divergent as SIP, XMPP, a few dozen proprietary IM systems, some with VoIP and/or voice chat, push-to-talk, video calls, email, social network update feeds, and circuit switched telephony and give the user one set of tools, one set of contact information, one history, one set of shortcuts, and one consistent set of verbs and nouns for manipulating these capabilities?

The radio interface layer, and user interface on top of it, that turns your key presses into phone calls in one direction, and state-changes reported from the radio baseband into indications of call progress in the other direction is not enough. But how do you keep it just as simple for the user?

The notion of a conversation has to evolve to encompass the new media of communication. Key objects: people, conversations, connections, addresses, services, identities, status, and presence have to be made simple enough for humans to manipulate through the same 12 keys and handful of other buttons, and their visual manifestations have to fit on screens small enough to keep discreetly in one's pocket.

And this is the hard part: We have to create a new world of communications objects that spans media, networks, and protocols, and we have to make the human customer instantly fluent in the language of these objects. This layer, consisting of many new protocols, access to many new services, and quite a few fundamentally new capabilities has to be inserted between the keypad and the radio without the user noticing that the amount of software in the system has gone from bottle-rocket to space shuttle in one step.

The zealous don't care: They are happy to stuff a computer into a belt-pouch. Multimedia communication is easy if the user is comfortable with multiple applications. But, to give multimedia communication mass appeal, the masses must be appealed to: The result, for them, must be that their phones do more, but don't ask more from them.

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